Unfortunately, I did not know where to post this sort of question as it is very ambiguous. So I figured the Academia forum was the best place to ask, but feel free to point me to another direction. That said, this question is more about getting inspiration, rather than getting answers.
Here's my story: I'm currently studying computer science at college, and finally being top of my class in a particular course has given me the confidence to strive for greater things than I originally thought possible for myself. I want to pursue a job in research, because I would rather help mankind with technological/innovative progress than financial/social progress... So my dream is to acquire myself a well-earned Ph.D.
But here's the thing: I've studied computer security most of my life (leisure-study), and always imagined that this would be my main field of research because I'm very good at this specific area of expertise.
However, recently i've started to rethink this career path. My realization was that this field, albeit obviously not wasteful, was not going to prove beneficial for mankind in general/long-term. Unless we could use these defensive information technologies against a synthetic alien invasion, who's plan A was to destroy our Internet, hindering communications. But somehow I still think they would succeed.
So I have started to look into other areas of computer science. I kinda always had a dream of working with quantum computers (probably more a physics/engineering field at the moment), but i'm not really one of those extremely hardcore nerd types (God bless you guys.), so I suppose that's out of reach for me.
I'm leaning towards artificial intelligence, because I imagine that the two most prominent areas of research that will cause significiant improvements on our way of life will be either quantum computers, for their theoretical astonomical computational powers, and self-aware "strong AIs" that can help our race with all our physical, philosophical and economical problems (to name a few).
But I would still like to know if you guys think I should try to pursue something different. I'm not all that great at mathematics, but i'm extremely committed to my work once I begin, so I wouldn't mind becoming one of those "hardcore nerd types". I looked abit on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_science , and skimmed the theoretical computer science section, but nothing really sticks.
P.S. Please do not provide an answer such as "just learn what you love to learn", but it's not that simple in this case. I love just about everything that has to do with computers, both theory and applied, and computer science isn't a small genre to pick from.
Thank you most sincerely.
I don't really have an answer for you as it is ultimately your decision, but I think that choosing a subject based on its perceived potential being beneficial to mankind is not a good starting point. I would argue that you cannot judge the benefits society will have from your research until after it has happened. You can have all the best intentions and fail, or do something just for the fun of it and happen to invent something hugely useful. Many of the elements of modern computer interfaces for example were pioneered at Xerox PARC decades ago when nobody was really thinking about the impact their research would ultimately have.
Furthermore it will depend more on your individual contribution than on the field as a whole. Finally, even the most promising research might be not suitable for you because you don't enjoy it/find it too hard/don't like the people you're working with.